A Year of Woman’s Voices: Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Barnett

LaShonda Barnett’s Jam on the Vine is the first post in the 2015 A Year of Women’s Voices series. I have loved reading historical fiction for a long as I can remember and Jam on the Vine is one of the first I have read in a long time that made me me want to read it again as soon as I had finished it. This novel features a strong story with great character development, a believable weaving of fact and fiction, and romance. I am forever grateful to Fiona Zedde for recommending this book.

Barnett’s novel follows Ivoe Willams as she grows from a girl voraciously reading purloined newspapers to a woman pushed to risk her life publishing her own newspaper to address horrific abuses and racial injustices of the early 20th century. Interwoven in Ivoe’s story is the story of her family and her lover. Ivoe’s comfort with her sexuality is refreshing, and while a part of her story it is not the whole story. After an unfortunate encounter with an ex-lover, with doors slammed in her face because of her race and gender, Ivoe decides to make a way when there is no way.

Barnett’s writing is crisp, lyrical, and evocative. If someone were to ask me for a work that would help them to understand inhumanity of the Jim Crow south, the beginning of mass incarceration, horrors of the summer of 1919 and race riots in northern cities I would hand them this book. Although this is a work of fiction, it is built on actual events, and the experiences and emotions are true.

As a writer this is what I have learned reading LaShonda Barnett’s Jam on the Vine:

1. Setting is the crucible for character development.

2. The unsaid is as powerful as the blatant and more menacing.

3. Write it real, real emotions are compelling. Don’t gloss over the difficult ones. Jealousy, love, hate, revulsion, lust, and anger are essential for good storytelling.

4. Nothing is a terrifying as human beings behaving inhumanly.

5. Character growth is progressive but change can happen in an instant.

Be warned, this is not a comfortable read, but an anxiety promoting tense tale of one woman’s surviving and thriving during a very harsh and horrific time period of American history. Read this book with your eyes wide open, don’t look away, feel the fear, rejoice in Ivoe’s triumphs, celebrate her victories and passion.

Check out LaShonda Barnett’s website for more information and details about her other works.

 

A Year of Women’s Voice’s Retrospective

 

I started my Year of Women’s Voices project about this time last year. As an obsessive reader, book reviews are one of my favorite posts to write.  Each review features my thoughts on the craft of writing and observations about story telling learned from each writer. I have arranged my 2014 posts in chronological order, most recent first.  If there are writers here that you have not read, challenge yourself to read one new author this year.

 

Zoe Kessler: ADHD According to Zoe

 

 

 

Patti Smith: Just Kids

 

 

Jenny Lawson: Let’s Pretend this Never Happened

 

 

Taking the Long Way Home

After six weeks, ten thousand six hundred and ten miles, four suitcases, two sets of grandparents, and a wonderful start to the year, I am finally home. Happy, exhausted, and full of new ideas for this year’s posts. I enjoyed writing my Year of Women’s Voices series and will continue the book review series this year.  The blog will continue to feature tips for living with ADHD, time management tips, inspiration and ideas for writers and creative people of all types.
Last week I started a new series about money management and ADHD, follow this link if you missed it . Today I am starting another new series: Silent Sunday. Once a month I will post photographs / photo essays. Use the photos for inspiration, a story prompt, or just enjoy them.

 

 

Zoë Kessler ADHD Accoding to Zoë _ A Year of Women’s Voices

Zoë Kessler’s book ADHD According to Zoë : The Real Deal on Relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (2013) is the first book I recommend to women with ADHD.

Ms. Kessler’s book offers suggestions for the issues that ADHD folks deal with everyday, and she does it with humor and honesty. Her poignant stories and examples of the effects that ADHD has had on her life left me laughing, and a little teary remembering some examples from my own life. She effectively articulates the belief that many individuals with ADHD have: everyone else must know some grand secret way to keep it all together AND remember where they put it.
Ms. Kessler’s book differs in her honest approach to how ADHD affects social relationships and sexuality, a topic that most books address fleetingly or not at all.  Ms. Kessler’s suggestions and tips are truly helpful. The solutions presented are things that folks with ADHD would able to accomplish, not some solution dreamed up by someone who has no idea what it is like to be wired 24/7/365 with a short attention span, unless we are hyper-focused.  Ms. Kessler’s warmth and genuine desire to help comes through in her writing. Reading this book is like having a conversation with a close understanding friend.
Ms. Keller also examines and addresses the stress that comes from being a woman with ADHD and the social construct that women are the center of the family, able to take care of everyone and everything else in addition to themselves, addictions, disorganization and time management,  sexuality, social issues, impulsiveness, the need to move, financial issues, creativity, and overwhelm. She encourages women to embrace their differences and find ways to work with who they are, instead of trying to force themselves to become the imagined perfection of everyone else.
Her message of hope that everyone diagnosed with ADHD treat themselves “with the respect, kindness and love that you deserve” is a welcome one.  If you only have one book on your shelf that deals with ADHD make it this one.
As a writer and fellow club member this is what I have learned reading  Zoë Kessler’s book and her very helpful blog ADHD from A to Zoe

 

 

1.  Tell your story honestly.
2.  Humor makes it easier to talk about difficult topics.
3.  Real life examples are an effective way to tell your story.
4.  It is possible to make writing about self-help FUNNY and helpful.
5.  Embrace you unconventional self, let it show in your writing.
Here a short bio and contact information for Ms. Kessler.
Zoë Kessler (http://www.zoekessler.com) is a best-selling author, journalist, and motivational speaker who specializes in topics relating to adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).
A top blogger at Psych Central.com, Kessler‘s blog, ADHD from A to Zoë has garnered a loyal readership from around the globe. Kessler also blogs for The Huffington Post, and is a frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine. She’s created radio documentary and standup comedy about being a woman living with ADHD. Zoë’s been interviewed on international radio, and has been featured in print media, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD, including Scientific American Mind Magazine.
Kessler’s most recent book, ADHD According to Zoë: The Real Deal on Relationships, Finding Your Focus, and Finding Your Keys has been described as a must-read, spellbinding portrayal of a woman with ADHD.

Fiona Zedde: Delicious Desire_ A Year of Women’s Voices

I met Fiona Zedde  in 2011 when she came to speak at the College of Wooster. We hosted her in our home.  She was lovely, engaging, and totally forgave my goofy dog for destroying an intimate article of her clothing. She gifted us a copy of Dangerous Pleasures (2011).

Being the voracious reader that I am, I finished it in a day, and just like one of her characters, I was hungry for more. More women secure in their sexuality, secure in their desires, and more of Fiona’s luscious writing. Her word choice, and character development are exceptional. Her writing is sultry, seductive, and tantalizing. Fiona’s stories feature lead characters that are smart, introspective and passionate.  Her novels achingly explore the intersections of love, hate and desire.

In addition to her contemporary novels and stories of lesbian love and desire, Ms. Zedde also has written two urban fantasy novels, Every Dark Desire (2007) and the sequel Desire at Dawn (2014). Her vampires do not sparkle, and would rip your throat out for even suggesting it.

Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres.  I devoured Every Dark Desire (2007) and had to wait, not so patiently for Desire at Dawn (2014). Be warned!  Her writing is so engaging that I neglected to notice a bat flying around my house while absorbed in Broken in Soft Places (2013).  If you start reading one of Ms. Zedde’s novels you may not stop, even for a bat!

My favorite Fiona Zedde books/stories:

Dangerous Pleasures (2011) Risk, longing, denial, death, surrender, and love. What more could you ask?
Every Dark Desire (2007) and Desire at Dawn ( 2014) Hot, sexy, lesbian vampires, no sparkling. Did I say hot?
Bliss (2005) Edgy sexual exploration that leads a woman to her true self. A coming out story that captures the initial confusion and ultimate delight of becoming who you are.
Nightshade( 2012) An assassin makes her way through this collection of stories, kicking ass and taking hearts.
When She Says Yes (2014) A collection of provocative short stories, perfect for (adult) bedtime.

As a writer this is what I have learned reading Fiona Zedde:

1. Word choice is key in provoking emotions and driving narrative.
2. Don’t back away from the hard scenes, show them, warts and all.
3. Character growth is story.
4. Complex relationships create a compelling read.
5. Present the reality that is racism, homophobia, and class conflict in your stories.
6. Make your characters, even the vile characters, live on the page.

Here is the link to Fiona’s website: http://fionazedde.weebly.com and a short biography:

Jamaican-born Fiona Zedde is the author of several novels, including the Lambda Literary Award finalists Bliss and Every Dark Desire. Her novel, Dangerous Pleasures, was winner of the About.com Readers’ Choice Award for Best Lesbian Novel or Memoir of 2012. Her new vampire novel, Desire at Dawn, is available now. 

Alisse Waterston: Making Theory Accessible with Intimate Ethnography

This is my sixth post in my Year of Women’s Voices blog
series, and features my review of Alisse Waterston’s ethnography My Father’s
Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century 
(2014).  In this intimate ethnography of her father, Dr. Waterston
has written a frank portrayal of her father as a man, a survivor, a soldier, an
entrepreneur, husband, and father.  Her
writing honors her father without maudlin sentiment.  She frames her father’s lived experiences
with migration and violence, and uses his experiences to illustrate social
theory in a way that makes it accessible for non-academics.
Her writing is crisp, clear, and rich with detail. She
chooses a concise series of her father’s life events that create a reading
experience that is informative, and moving. The reading experience is enhanced by the companion website that
contains photographs, documents, audio files, and videos of her interviews with
her father as she worked on this ethnography. The book becomes a much more intimate experience through watching the
interactions between Dr. Waterston and her father, observing their body language, and listening to their voices.
 As a writer I appreciate Dr. Waterston’s explanation of her
struggles in her dual roles as daughter and ethnographer, and her process of
conducting research. I truly appreciated her discussion of the discipline it
took to not be distracted by the numerous ideas for other projects that called
to her during this project, especially when the experience of the project
became difficult.
If you are interested in ethnographic studies, social
theory, history, Judaic studies, anthropology, or if you are looking for an
extremely readable book that might help you understand how the experience of
violence shapes lives, this is the book I would hand you.
 What I have learned as a writer:
  1.    It is okay to include yourself in the story.
  2.    Stick with the project even when it is hard, or
    other projects beckon seductively from your research.
  3.   It is possible
    to portray unflattering behaviors in a way that is not overly sympathetic, nor  vindictive.
  4.  Multimedia
    can make a non-fiction project a richer experience, and allows the writer to
    include    research material that would be otherwise not be available.
  5.   Write the story that is hard to write, be
    fearless.
  6.    Don’t be trapped by conventions of disciplines
    or genre.
 I am grateful that
Dr. Waterston has created a work that is compelling, and readable on a subject
that is difficult to read about. When
confronted with violence, most of us want to turn away, to shield our eyes and our minds from horrific events. Dr. Waterston reminds us that even if we
want to look away, we must not, we need to understand.
For a biography and more information about Alisse Waterston and her other books, this is the link to My Father’s Wars website and this is the link to Dr. Waterston’s home page

 

 

The Lush World of N. K. Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I love N. K. Jemisin’s  The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods).  If you like speculative fiction I can not recommend this series enough. Even if you think you don’t like speculative fiction you should read this for the sheer joy of reading a story that is so well written. I first came across N. K. Jemisin’s  writing through a short story collection Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories (2011).  Her short story “The Effulent Engine” featured strong, intelligent women, and I was hooked.

As a reader I love stories that pull me deep into the character’s world. Ms. Jemisin creates a world that is rich with conflict, full of complex characters coping with cultural beliefs, manipulation, grief, oppression, murder, betrayal, and love.

The environment that the characters live, love, and die in is essential to good story telling. So many speculative writers lose focus when it comes to the world their characters live in, taking short cuts,  they end up creating a cardboard world. That is not the case here. Ms. Jemisin creates a world that is original, enchanting, and essential to the the story. Her writing is tight, focused, and a pleasure to read, the writing never distracts from the story.

As a writer this is what I have learned from reading N. K. Jemisin:

1. Main characters come in all genders, shapes and sizes.
2. Create your own world, make it real, make it sing to your readers souls.
3. Speculative fiction is custom made to explore complex issues.
4. Write tight, make every word count.
5. Weave environment and culture into your story.

 

 

 

A Year of Women’s Voices: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

 

2014

I have been a Patti Smith fan since high school. I wore out my copy of Horses. I could not get enough. In college I played Patti Smith loud to annoy the preppys and the narrow-minded.
I loved her lyrics and punk sound. The gender bending album cover and lack of make-up made me want to be in her world.

Later I found her poetry and have remained as enamored of her as I was in high school.  In 2010 her memoir Just Kids won a well deserved National Book Award. I say well deserved because she is an engaging story-teller and writer. She brings a poet’s rhythm and word craft to the story of her young life, and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. She is humble and honest. I have read a number of memoirs that are maudlin, poorly written, or deify belief. Just Kids is all that a memoir should be, a true telling of events that engages your senses and soul.

What I have learned as a writer reading and listening to Patti Smith:
1. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.
2. Ugly can be beautifully written.
3. Be honest.
4. Pay attention to the rhythm of your words.
5. Not everyone will understand your work, don’t let it stop you.

Here is a link to one of my favorite Patti Smith songs. I want you to imagine it played at top volume on a turntable in a tiny dorm room with punk posters on the wall, and illegal beer stashed in the shower. Enjoy!

 

Powerful and Evocative: Octavia Butler

 

Give me the thorns…

It was 1981 when I discovered Octavia Butler’s fiction.  I fell hard, reading everything that I could find that she had written.  As an long time fan of Science Fiction/Fantasy, I craved stories that featured women as more than objectified window dressing. Octavia Butler’s writing is populated with women who are intelligent, strong, survivors, and creators.   Her writing is evocative and powerful. Crisp and clear, her pacing forces you to read on, long after you should have turned off the light.

Octavia Butler was not afraid to write about pain, death, rape, slavery, the future, sexual violence, power dynamics, and racism. The difficult topics that so many writers look away from, or gloss over in their work, she featured front and center in her stories.  Her writing pulls you close, and forces you to keep reading, even when part of you wants to look away. Her language is intoxicating. Her voice draws you into her world, and everything else falls away. Be warned: Ms. Butler will make you think about things you might not want to think about.

My favorite books/stories are:

1. Blood Child- (Blood Child and other Stories, 1995)  Insects, male pregnancy, power dynamics and love.  This story won both the HUGO and the Nebula award. It was the first of her works I read, and the one I go back to when I need a fix.

2. Fledgling (2005) Vampires, Race, and Society.  A welcome twist on the vampire motif. No sparkly vampires here!

3. Kindred (1979) Nightmare fantasy, time travel, and slavery. Read it at least twice to get the full effect. Her ability to weave past and present events is exceptional.

4. Lilith’s Brood ( Xenogenisis Trilogy- published as omnibus editions since 2000) – Genetics, third gender extraterrestrials, sex and power dynamics.  Lover or master? Rescued or captured? Or all of the above? This collection of stories is seductive and terrifying.

5. Parable of the Sower (1993) Dystopian future, Race,  the power of learning, a new religion, and hope.  This novel reminds me that there is always a way forward for those that strive to make their own way.

What I have learned as a writer reading Octavia Butler:
1. Don’t be afraid of exploring and writing the hard stuff: Race, gender dynamics, sexual violence, power dynamics, hate, and love.
2. Wrapping difficult topics in a captivating story makes them provocative and powerful.
3. Story construction and pacing is as important as word choice.

Octavia Butler left us in 2006. I still grieve for the stories she had inside that we didn’t get to read.

Why I love The Bloggess AKA Jenny Lawson

 

Hanoi Airport, 2009

This is the second installment in the year of Women’s Voices series and the featured voice belongs to Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess. Her book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ( A Mostly True Memoir  is funny, heartbreaking and full of weirdness.  Her memoir is an open discussion of her struggles with depression, distraction, and anxiety. I adored her twisted tales of family, love, death, and taxidermy.

As someone who has had my share of weird adventures that are tragic/comic, reading this book felt like I was a sitting in a bar with an old friend. In our family and in my circle of friends, when things are bleak, we always find something to laugh about, even if we end up crying at the same time. This book is like that. Be warned, some might find her humor and style offensive. If you are at all freaked out by discussions of taxidermy, this is not the book for you.  If you want to sample her writing style before committing to the book, check out her blog here  thebloggess.com .

As a writer, the lessons of story and craft that I gleaned from this book are:

  1.  Be honest, except when an exaggeration will make better copy.
  2. Swearing is okay if done artfully, and she is a freaking Picasso with curse words. For those of you who know me: she swears more than I do, which is saying a lot!
  3. Do not be afraid to talk about the hard things, for example: exhuming dead pets, losing a baby, and taxidermy puppets.
  4. No matter how weird it gets, it can get weirder, and funnier.
  5. Truth can be funnier than fiction.
As a fiction writer I don’t have any plans to write a memoir, but after reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir),  I know that if I did, I would strive to be as funny and as honest as Jenny Lawson.
2014